Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’: Story Behind The ‘Glee’ Cover

MJ classic is mashed up with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' 'Heads Will Roll' for post-Super Bowl episode.

Madonna, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and now, finally, Michael Jackson. The cast of “Glee” has covered plenty of icons during their first two seasons, but it’s taken 33 episodes to get around to the King of Pop.

With a huge catalog of Jackson songs, the singing, dancing students of McKinley High paid homage to the late singer with one of his biggest staples (and, arguably, the greatest music video of all time) with their take on “Thriller.”

The groundbreaking single from Jackson’s best-selling album of the same name was mashed up with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Heads Will Roll” for the post-Super Bowl episode (titled “The Sue Sylvester Bowl Shuffle”), featuring a zombie-fied “Glee” cast.

Bound to become a smash all over again (though with its nonstop rotation at Halloween parties and wedding receptions until the end of time, it’s never truly gone away), here’s a brief history of the dance/pop classic.

Released on January 23, 1984, “Thriller” was the seventh, and final, single to be released from Jackson’s smash record. According to the RIAA, the album (released by Epic Records) has gone gold 29 times, narrowly edging out the Eagles’ Greatest Hits 1971-1975 for the title of best-selling album of all time.

In 2009, MTV News estimated that the Thriller album was poised to go triple diamond , meaning 30 million records sold in the U.S. alone.

After Thriller‘s other singles (including “Billie Jean,” “Beat It” and “Wanna Be Startin’ Something”) dominated the charts, it was time for the spooky, undeniably original track to take over. The song “Thriller” also appeared on many of Jackson’s other albums, including the compilations HIStory and Number Ones.

Clocking in at a little under six minutes (though the radio edit was closer to four-and-a-half), the song features pop-music mainstays like synthesizers but shakes things up with its spooky sound effects, including creaking floors, howling and thunder.

The song was produced by Quincy Jones and written and composed by Rod Tempterton and spent 14 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at #4.

But it’s the music video for “Thriller” that truly made it the phenomenon it was in the ’80s and continues to be today. Less a music video than a mini-motion picture, the video (over 13 minutes long and directed by John Landis) won three MTV Video Music Awards and has been named the best music video of all time by many outlets, including VH1 for the special “VH1: 100 Greatest Videos.”

The chiller features Jackson in that iconic red leather jacket on a date with his girlfriend (played by Ola Ray) before things go terribly awry. After all, as Jackson (whose disclaimer at the start of the video reads, “This film in no way endorses a belief in the occult”) sings in the opening line, “It’s close to midnight and something evil’s lurking in the dark.” Cue werewolves, zombies, Vincent Price’s soliloquy and one of the most memorable dance sequences ever.

The video was (no pun intended) a monster hit. As the Los Angeles Times notes, “At the height of the song’s popularity, MTV would run the 14-minute ‘Thriller’ video twice an hour.”

Choreographed by Jackson and Michael Peters (who, as the LA Times also reported, appears in the video as one of the zombies) and with makeup by Oscar-winner Rick Baker (also an undead “Thriller” extra) was made with a huge budget of an estimated $500,000.

Still, the efforts paid off. Landis (who told the “Today” show back in 2009 that no one wanted to give them the funds to make the risky vid) made the accompanying 45-minute documentary about the venture, called “The Making of Thriller.” Featuring the behind-the-scenes wizardry, as well as the music video in full, it would go on to move more than 10 million copies.

Since then, the signature song and video have seen their share fair of tributes in movies (notably in the 2004 comedy”13 Going on 30″) and TV (“South Park,” “Family Guy,” “30 Rock,” among others), not to mention the countless flash mobs that have gone viral. (Remember the prisoners in the Philippines who became overnight phenomenons on YouTube?)

Even with the “Glee” number, this likely won’t be the last incarnation of “Thriller.” Billboard reported in October that a “Thriller” film is in the works. With a plot allegedly revolving around Price’s narration, Kenny Ortega, who directed Jackson’s last effort, “This Is It,” will reportedly helm the project.

Since Jackson’s untimely passing on June 25, 2009, the song and video’s legacy continue to live on. In the week following Jackson’s death, “Thriller” was the best-selling track in the U.S., with sales of 167,000 copies on the Billboard Hot Digital Singles chart.

Then, in December 2009, “Thriller” was the first music video to ever be inducted into the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. It seems “no mere mortal can resist … the thriller” after all.

What did you think of the “Thriller” mash-up on “Glee”? Let us know in the comments!